This is a review of Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation written for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014
Helen Garner has done it again!
According to the Sydney Morning Herald’s Jane Sullivan, ‘The most eagerly awaited Australian non-fiction book [for this year] is probably Helen Garner’s investigation into the case of Robert Farquharson, twice convicted of murder for driving a car into a dam with his three sons inside,’ (4 January, 2014). Text will publish This House of Grief in September. It will be the third major depiction of a court case by Australian author Helen Garner.
Her previous books centred on court cases, The First Stone (1995) and Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004), caused considerable controversy, not about Garner‘s writing, but rather about her treatment of the subjects and what some critics saw as a lack of objectivity.
Both of these books are narrative nonfiction. In other words, Helen Garner has written fact-based stories in which she has presented compelling narrative based on her own experience of court hearings, archival research and ‘real-world’ interviews.
Her research is verifiable. She has set scenes, presented characters and told truthful stories from her own perspective. It is perfectly valid for an author to write narrative nonfiction from his or her unique perspective, regardless of whether or not such a viewpoint pleases an audience.
The two women involved in The First Stone and Anu Singh, who is at the centre of Joe Cinque’s Consolation, refused the author’s requests for interviews while she was writing the books. Instead, they maintained what Garner calls ‘determined silence’. Later, in both cases, there were ferocious attacks by the women themselves and by others who claimed that Helen Garner had written biased accounts of events and the trials.
Narrative nonfiction (sometimes called literary journalism) cannot, without verification, include what people were thinking. It would be disingenuous of any author in this genre to speculate about what a character had in mind. To do so would mean the work had crossed from nonfiction to fiction.
Joe Cinque’s Consolation is a chilling account of the killing of a twenty-six year old engineer at the hands of his live-in lover, law student Anu Singh. Following a dinner party at the house in Canberra where the couple lived, at which she announced ‘the crime of the century’ was to be committed, she laced his coffee with Rohypnol and injected him with heroin. This is an apparently motiveless, albeit well rehearsed, killing in which she implicates her friend, Madhavi Rao.
For the following thirty-six hours, when she eventually called an ambulance, she watched his convulsions, vomiting and death.
Anu Singh, daughter of rich immigrant Indian medico parents, claimed diminished responsibility for the killing because of mental illness. The Court did not permit two Crown psychiatrists to interview her, so that they based their reports on documentation which was available to them.
However, an associate professor of behavioural sciences from the University of Sydney, a psychologist called by the Crown, told the Court that many of Singh’s complaints – feelings of her flesh rotting and ants crawling under her skin, ‘might be interpreted not as signs of psychosis but as side-effects of the recreational drugs she was taking’.
The first trial with a jury of Anu Singh and Madhavi Rao was aborted. Anu Singh elected that her second trial should be with a judge only. Justice Ken Crispin convicted her, not of murder, but of the lesser charge of manslaughter. She was imprisoned.
Throughout Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Helen Garner struggles to understand, for herself and in order to explain to her readers, the issues involved in this case and the workings of the Law as it unfolds. She discusses, as she has in other writing, issues of morality as well as the responsibility that surrounds the duty of care of bystanders who know that a criminal act, in this case the planned killing of another human being, is about to take place.
The result is a skilfully written, compelling and very uncomfortable story, in which Helen Garner attempts to honour the young man, Joe Cinque, victim of a senseless crime, and his family.
In the end, though, this story is hardly consolation.
‘But there are some wounds that can never be healed’ – Helen Garner